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IMMIGRATION

Frenchwoman on trial for helping migrant lover sneak into Britain

A former supporter of France's anti-immigration National Front (FN) goes on trial Tuesday for helping her Iranian migrant lover smuggle across the Channel to Britain.

Frenchwoman on trial for helping migrant lover sneak into Britain
Photo: Calais Mon Amour
sneakBeatrice Huret faces possible jail time if convicted of helping Mokhtar — whom she met while volunteering at the since-demolished “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais — slip out of France under cover of night, on a rickety boat.
   
The 45-year-old is one of several people around France who have been charged with illegally assisting migrants in recent months. While none have been imprisoned, a farmer was recently hit with a 3,000-euro ($3,300) fine.
   
Huret's lawyer told AFP she would ask the court in the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer to dismiss the case, insisting her client acted for “humanitarian reasons.”
   
She will be tried alongside three others accused of being part of a smuggling network, some of whose members allegedly acted for financial gain.
 
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Photo: AFP
 
'Love at first sight'
 
Huret's journey from FN sympathiser to alleged people smuggler began on a cold day in February 2015 when she gave a lift to a young Sudanese migrant travelling to the squalid Jungle.
   
Before that, she had lived “a basic life” and voted FN like her husband, a border police officer who died of cancer in 2010.
   
Seeing the conditions in the Jungle gave her a new perspective on the plight of the thousands of migrants who flocked to Calais over the past decade in the hope of stowing away on a lorry bound for Britain.
   
“It was a shock to see all these people wading around in the mud,” said Huret, a dark-haired woman with kohl-rimmed eyes, told AFP in an interview earlier this month.
   
She began volunteering at the camp soon afterwards and a year later met 37-year-old Mokhtar, who was among a group of Iranians who sewed their mouths shut in protest over the demolition of the southern half of the makeshift camp in March 2016.
   
When they first met, he spoke English but no French and her English was at best rudimentary. “It was just 'hello, thank you, goodbye', so I didn't speak to him immediately,” she said.
   
“He got up to get me some tea. You got a sense of someone who was very gentle, very calm and then his look… it was love at first sight,” said Huret.
   
With the help of Google Translate the pair struck up a relationship and after a few months he came to stay with her, her 76-year-old mother and 19-year-old son while continuing to seeking passage to Britain.
   
After a failed bid to stow away on a lorry crossing the sea, Mokhtar enlisted her help in another, desperate plan.
   
She agreed to buy a small boat for 1,000 euros ($1,119) and on June 11, 2016 towed it to a beach from which he and two friends took off across the treacherous Channel.
   
The boat sprung a leak en route but the trio arrived safely after being rescued by the British coastguard.
   
Huret, however, soon found herself in trouble. Two months after the crossing, she was arrested and charged with being part of a migrant smuggling network.
 
Race for film rights
 
“I brought a boat to a beach. That's it. I did it out of love… I didn't profit from it,” she wrote in “Calais Mon Amour”, a book about their romance for which several film-makers are vying to acquire the rights.
   
The couple have kept up their relationship over the past year, with Huret regularly crossing the Channel to visit Mokhtar in the northern English city of Sheffield where the former teacher has obtained a work permit.
   
She is one of several people to appear in court in recent months charged with illegally assisting migrants who have travelled up through Europe after crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats or stowing away in trucks travelling overland from Turkey.
   
Since demolishing the Jungle camp in October French authorities have taken a stern line on illegal migration, accusing activists who provide assistance to homeless foreigners of creating a “pull” effect.
   
In February, a 37-year-old olive farmer in southern France was put on trial for helping African migrants cross the border from Italy and giving them accommodation.
   
Cedric Herrou was let off with a suspended fine of €3,000 ($3,300) but was re-arrested last week for continuing to assist migrants seeking shelter.
 

POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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